Among the growing field of indie games, one truly stands alone: Dwarf Fortress. The unbelievably rich and complex and legendarily user-unfriendly title has been a free staple of awe and frustration for years. But the developers, in a huge shift to the status quo, have announced that the game will not only soon have a paid version on Steam — it’ll have… graphics.
It may be hard for anyone who isn’t already familiar with the game and community to understand how momentous this is. In the decade and a half this game has been in active, continuous development, perhaps the only thing that hasn’t changed about the game is that it is a maze for the eyes, a mess of alphanumerics and ASCII-based art approximating barrels, dwarves, goblins, and dozens of kinds of stone.
You know in The Matrix where they show how the world is made up of a bunch of essentially text characters? It’s basically that, except way more confusing. But you get a feel for it after a few years.
So when developers Tarn and Zach Adams announced on their Patreon account that they were planning on ditching the ASCII for actual sprites in a paid premium version of the game to be made available on Steam and indie marketplace itch.io.. minds were blown. Of all the changes Dwarf Fortress has undergone, this is likely the most surprising. Here are a few screenshots compared with the old ASCII graphics:
Not that you couldn’t get graphics in other ways — gamers aren’t that masochistic. There are “tile packs” available in a variety of sizes and styles that any player can apply to the game to make it easier to follow; in fact, the creators of two popular tilesets, Meph and Mike Mayday, were tapped to help make the “official” one, which by the way looks nice. Kitfox Games (maker of the lovely Shrouded Isle) is helping out with art and music and a few other things.
There are plenty of other little mods and improvements made by dedicated players. Many of those will likely be ported over to Steam Workshop and made a cinch to install — another bonus for paying players. The game will cost $20 when it comes out.
Now, I should note that I in no way find this bothersome. I support Tarn and Zach in whatever they choose to do, and at any rate the original ASCII version will always be free. But what does disturb me is the reason they are doing this. As Tarn wrote on Patreon in a rare non-game update:
We don’t talk about this much, but for many years, Zach has been on expensive medication, which has fortunately been covered by his healthcare. It’s a source of constant concern, as the plan has changed a few times and as the political environment has shifted. We have other family health risks, and as we get older, the precariousness of our situation increases; after Zach’s latest cancer scare, we determined that with my healthcare plan’s copay etc., I’d be wiped out if I had to undergo the same procedures. That said, crowdfunding is by far our main source of income and the reason we’re still here. Your support is still crucial, as the Steam release may or may not bring us the added stability we’re seeking now and it’s some months away.
It’s sad as hell to hear that a pair of developers whose game is as well-loved as this, and who are making a modest sum via Patreon can still be frightened of sudden bankruptcy on account of a chronic medical condition.
This isn’t the place for a political debate, but one would hope that the creators of what amounts to a successful small business like this would not have to worry about such things in the richest country in the world.
That said, they seem comfortable with the move to real graphics and the addition of a more traditional income stream, so the community (myself included) will no doubt see the sunny side of this and continue to support the game in its new form.